An over-the-top experience – Beartooth Scenic Byway
After gallivanting in and around scenic Cody, Wyoming for a week, we packed up and continued north into our 48th state, big sky country – Montana!
We chose our first stop at Red Lodge Montana, largely due to Hans and Lisa’s great review of the town and Perry’s Campground (Steve’s review here). We’re having a good time here, and I’ll give the details in my next post. But for now let’s take a drive on the famed Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road – which several of you have told us is a must-do. And you were right!
I was curious what makes a highway a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road. We have driven many byways (17 out of 32) during our travels, but I didn’t pay much attention to the designation until now.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, to be designated as a National Scenic Byway a road must possess at least one of six intrinsic qualities and be regionally significant: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. To receive an All-American Road designation, a road must possess multiple intrinsic qualities that are nationally significant and have one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere. The road or highway must also be considered a “destination unto itself.” That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip.
Let’s see if the Beartooth Highway lives up to its designation. And because it’s a scenic drive, this post is loaded with pictures. Are you ready? Then let’s go!
This section of U.S. Highway 212 runs between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana, with a large portion running through the northwest corner of Wyoming. It’s the highest elevation highway in Wyoming (10,947 feet) and Montana (10,350 feet), and the highest elevation highway in the Northern Rockies. So high it’s only open mid-May through mid-October. We began our drive from our campground located right on Hwy 212 just 3 miles south of Red Lodge.
Passing through lush forest, we continued our steady ascent into the arctic-alpine section of the drive on the Beartooth Plateau. At about 10,000′ the road climbed above the treeline and crossed the alpine tundra on the plateau.
At this point Steve was no longer a happy driver as I constantly asked him to stop so I could photograph the gorgeous, beautiful wildflowers – and they were just about everywhere!
The fragile tundra was full of blooms with a plethora of blue, pink, white and yellow wildflowers as far as the eye could see. To appreciate these tiny flowers I had to drop almost to my belly to get good pictures.
We continued on until we reached the highest point at West Summit, elevation 10,974′.
From here we had not only superb views of the highest peaks of the mountains, but also an excellent look at the distant North Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming.
Construction of the 68-mile route began in 1931 and was completed in 1936. Built at the cost of $2.5M, it ranks as one of the country’s major engineering feats.
We negotiated another series of switchbacks as we descended to the Wyoming section of the highway.
Fortunately the Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower was open when we arrived. It sits in windy isolation on a butte at 9811′, in the Wyoming section of the mountains. A 3-mile drive up a gravel road ended at the structure, which was completed by the men of the CCC in 1942.
The friendly volunteer demonstrated how firefighters once used the tower’s original Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint a fire’s location after spotting it. Although the instrument is no longer used, this tower is still in operation during fire season.
He also told us the history of Clay Butte Tower and how it has played a major role in fire detection and suppression in this area over the past 70+ years.
While Steve continued to listen I walked around and found a few new friends:
I admired a lavish array of wildflowers on the grounds and hillsides. Beautiful!
Beartooth Butte was at the bottom of an inland sea millions of years ago, as evidenced by bands of sandstone on the formation. Crystal-clear Beartooth Lake at the foot of the Butte is the largest in the area.
Continuing south, we stopped at Lake Creek Falls where waters from the big snowmelt were rushing down the mountain:
Pilot and Index peaks seen at a different angle from the highway. These peaks are very distinguishable from both Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and the Beartooth Highway.
The 45th parallel is the latitude line that connects this spot along the highway with the prairies of South Dakota, the north woods of Maine, the wine country of France, the deserts of Mongolia and finally right back to this spot.
We grabbed a quick snack in Cooke City as the clouds began to gather overhead. On our way back I caught a glimpse of a Moose by the road, and even though it was beginning to rain I had to capture her pose. She didn’t look too happy about it!
It was a fantastic drive, and I think the high-alpine plateau was my favorite part – even though the wind was howling up there. The spectacular views were among the best we’ve seen on our many driving adventures, and as usual my pictures cannot capture the immensity of it all. We urge everyone to make this a destination drive, as it definitely lives up to its designation as an All-American Road!